Director: Nick Phillips (Nick Millard)
Retro Shock-O-Rama

In an apparent attempt to break out of graphic lesbian-driven sexploitation films, director Nick Phillips (real name: Nick Millard) shot two very different horror-exploitation titles in 1973-74. Since 1967, Phillips had specialized in post-dubbed softcore and hardcore sex films, which focused on lesbian relationships, fetishes of all kinds, and usually featured familiar San Francisco actresses such as Lynn Harris, Uschi Digart and Monica Gayle. For these two drive-in schlock classics, Phillips shot with live sound, assembled a cast of amateur actors, and produced the two films assembled here: SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING and CRIMINALLY INSANE. Both clock in at little over an hour each and offer plenty of great low-rent thrills for fans of bottom-of-the-barrel regional horrors!

Nina, a beautiful young blonde girl, viciously slices her wrists repeatedly with a razor blade while a greasy mustachioed vampire watches with glee, drooling as she finally drops dead in a huge pool of blood covering her bed. The suicide blonde’s brother Mark attends her funeral and stays at her apartment (the blood-spattered bedroom hasn’t been cleaned yet!). After being told by a homicide detective on the case that his sister probably didn’t off herself, he begins to investigate her final days spent at a dilapidated rat-infested church in Monterey, inhabited by a creepy preacher. She was researching the horrific history of the church, which was taken over by Satan worshippers who sacrificed children, converted priests and nuns to the dark side, and performed blood Sabbaths! It turns out that Nina has become a vampire, with a giant set of choppers protruding from her mouth, and has joined the preacher’s cult of bloodsuckers, which is leaving drained corpses all over the city. Nina is instructed to destroy all the members of her family, including her bed-ridden aunt and the aunt’s Hispanic caretaker, except Mark, who she is intended to marry (!) and together, create the spawn of Satan!

Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Video Guide warns that SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING is not only bad, but “everything about it is bad.” This is true, but it still has some moments of kitschy brilliance! If you liked the Florida-shot vampire cheapie THE BRIDES WORE BLOOD, you will definitely enjoy BLACK WEDDING! Like that film, this one has a languid pace, often burdened by long dialogue scenes, but features a nice homegrown feel that screams the 70s. I’m a sucker for any horror film shot outside of the usual filmmaking arenas (Los Angeles/Hollywood and New York), so this one, shot in San Francisco, has been intriguing me for ages. Phillips shot almost all his films here, and the steep hills and vintage townhouses add a nice atmosphere. It’s still terribly written, indifferently acted, will send most viewers into a numbing trance. After a great shock opening of Nina’s suicide, the film drifts along with a few nifty moments to wake you up. Watch for: a gallon or two of bright red stage blood, extra-large vampire fangs, a severed finger, a familiar apartment from Phillips’ other films (PLEASURES OF A WOMAN, for example), a simple but effective score featuring a tortured piano (parts sound like the cue used ad nauseum in CARNIVAL OF BLOOD!), a very long, bloody attack scene set to classical piano playing on a turntable, a random fireside sex scene, a great hand-painted portrait of the vampire Nina, a very good attack scene at a secluded cottage, and a pretty confusing non-ending. I would advise anyone going by Weldon’s review to at least give this one a chance. It’s not as entertaining as its co-feature, but in the painless hour that goes by, there’s enough tacky gore and lapses of logic to provide a few thrills and chuckles.

Taken from the best film elements available, Phillips’ personal negative, SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING suffers from lots of dirt and speckling during dark scenes, but it’s a transfer on par with most Something Weird titles. It certainly looks better than the old VHS version, with nice flesh tones, garish reds during the gore sequences, and deep blacks! Unfortunately, as with a few other Phillips films, whoever was running the sound equipment definitely needed to take some technical classes. Much of the dialogue is either under-recorded or over-recorded, resulting in a strain to hear some lines and a few seconds later, the same piece of dialogue is filled with static and is hard to make out. It’s kind of a mess, but thankfully you don’t need to understand the dialogue to appreciate the silly horror elements.

Making the switch from supernatural ghouls to psycho killers, Phillips made the film he will go down in history for: CRIMINALLY INSANE! This incredible 60-minute wonder is ten times better than BLACK WEDDING; where that film seemed to be made by a filmmaker lost and desperate to cash in on a popular genre, this one has fascinating characters, delirious dialogue and is fascinating on so many levels!

Ethel Janowski, a 300-pound mental patient, is released to the care of her uptight grandmother, who lives in a vintage townhouse in San Francisco (yep, lots of great location footage in this one). Ethel bitches about the meager meals she was given at the asylum (“two softboiled eggs and dry toast for breakfast!”) and devours mammoth meals whenever she feels like it, at all hours of the day. When Granny locks all the food in the house in the pantry and hides the key, Ethel grabs a butcher knife and stabs it through her chest, then keeps stabbing the corpse’s hand to steal the key away! Immediately after she stabs a delivery boy to death with a broken bottle (“I don’t have $80! I’ve only got $4.50!”), her prostitute sister Rosalee arrives to stay for a while. In-between making out and snorting cocaine with her sleazy make-up wearing boyfriend John and turning tricks with desperate immigrants in the house, Rosalee begins to smell the rotting corpses Ethel has hid inside Granny’s room… It’s not long before Ethel has to use her trusty meat cleaver to ensure that no one discovers her secret!

CRIMINALLY INSANE is a cheap, brilliant masterpiece, both funny and disturbing, and I wish Phillips had made more films like this! Viewers will be floored at what a wonderful mix of black humor and disgusting gore this is, especially after viewing the Phillips-on-autopilot SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING! He packs this hour with as much bloody violence as possible, with some time to spare spent on minimal character development and plot evolution. But primarily, this film was made to highlight the crazy murder setpieces, with plenty of bright red stage blood, loud screaming, and a vicious barbarity that actually makes the sequences run longer than usual! The film naturally belongs to behemoth Priscilla Alden as Ethel, the always-eating nutcase. She’s either always eating or brutally murdering, and some of the scenes of her fixing an entire package of bacon and an entire carton of eggs for breakfast made me nauseous! Likewise with her midnight snack: a gallon of milk, a box of Vanilla Wafers, and a bag of hard candy! She also cackles hysterically as she lays in bed with the corpse of her sister’s boyfriend, smirks as he tries to escape death by crawling down the stairs, sprays Lysol in the corpse room as she talks to her dead grandmother, and has a bizarre arty dream where she runs in slow-mo in a red dress and sees herself butchering mannequins in negative! George “Buck” Flower (billed under his sexploitation moniker, C.L. LeFleur) plays a detective investigating the murder of the delivery boy, and there’s also an uncomfortable love scene, a slow motion slap to the face, Ethel excusing herself to watch “Gunsmoke,” and plenty more surprises! What are you waiting for? This is an exploitation gem that must be in your collection ASAP! How many movies of any genre feature an insane 300-pound murderess chewing scenery and brutally butchering anyone who crosses her path?!

CRIMINALLY INSANE doesn’t look as good as SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING, with more grain present and a hazier image overall. But it’s a serviceable transfer from the best elements possible. The mono audio is much stronger than BLACK WEDDING, with all the screams and tongue-in-cheek dialogue coming through clearly.

Also included on the disc is the shot-on-video sequel (made years later in 1987!), CRAZY FAT ETHEL II (the on-screen title is CRIMINALLY INSANE II). Priscilla Alden returns as Ethel, with white hair and at least a hundred pounds lighter. Simply put, this is a lousy production, obviously shot for maybe $1.25, and most probably on a regular Camcorder, not a professional video system. All the credits are simply rehashed from the original, with a new title card inserted, and the plot is a virtual remake: Ethel is currently residing in another mental asylum, in her same schoolgirl uniform from the original film. For some reason, she is released to stay a halfway house and of course goes ballistic again, killing a few people. In a situation much like the sequels to BOOGEYMAN and HILLS HAVE EYES, roughly 50% or more of this production is just footage from the original CRIMINALLY INSANE. Drawn-out new scenes show Ethel eating bread and pudding, then staring into space, providing for TONS of flashbacks to footage from the original film! Even the exteriors of the asylum are just inserts from the 1973 production! Ethel goes to sleep, more flashbacks; sees a man, more flashbacks. It all gets really ridiculous, and what’s worse, the new footage isn’t any fun so this is exploitation at its worst. An old woman picks up a phone that doesn’t ring and isn’t connected to anything (!), and that sums up the cheapness and absurdity of this tough pill to swallow. The transfer expectedly leaves a lot to be desired in both audio and video quality. You can tell it was shot on a home Camcorder because whenever the dialogue gets too loud, the system tries to keep it down to a regular level, resulting in it being impossible to decipher!

If Retro Shock-O-Rama really wanted to go the completist route, they should have included DEATH NURSE, the third “Crazy Fat Ethel” film shot at the same as CRAZY FAT ETHEL II, on this set. However, it’s possible that Phillips doesn’t own this one, and frankly, considering how shitty FAT ETHEL II is, I don’t think I would care to watch DEATH NURSE. But it would have been nice to have on here anyway, as well as the almost immediate follow-up to that one, DEATH NURSE II. Phillips really tried milking this franchise for all it was worth, but nothing beats the original!

Surprisingly, this disc includes a nice selection of extras for such cheap little films! The two films, SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING and CRIMINALLY INSANE, feature audio commentaries with director Nick Millard, his wife Irmi, and film historian 42nd Street Pete. These are unfortunately lost causes, with a few nuggets of info thrown in, but even commenting on a 60-minute film, these feel longer because of all the dead space. Moderator Pete does little moderating or posing of questions, which means the trio basically watch the movie, interjecting a few factoids here and there, but I defy anyone to sit through these and not fall asleep. Too bad, because this could have been a nice place to provide a career overview or discuss budget, the origins of the scripts, shooting in San Francisco as opposed to Hollywood, the double-feature release of the two which happened two years after production, etc. Hell, maybe they did, I couldn’t force myself to finish these.

The featurettes are much more satisfying than the commentaries, and in fact should have forced the commentaries off the disc! In the interview focusing on BLACK WEDDING, Millard discusses shooting the film in his home in San Francisco and in Monterey, casting the leads, problems with the MPAA on the bloodshed in the film, his affection for the vampire genre, his dislike for the stage blood, and his intentions with the script. Too bad there’s no mention of what he meant to accomplish with the nonsensical ending. Continuing on to discuss CRIMINALLY INSANE, Millard begins by telling his beginnings as a director in 1960, and continues to explain his use of pseudonyms (and why he is upset over his use of one on CRIMINALLY INSANE!). He talks about producing this offbeat little gem, casting and working with Priscilla Alden, the shooting schedule, his joy at making horror films, the satire aspect of the film, and his desire to continue directing. Best of all, Millard and his wife reunite with CRIMINALLY INSANE star Priscilla Alden, looking healthy and happy in her golden years. Alden seems amused that she has become a cult icon, and offers many interesting anecdotes about the brief shooting schedule, including memories of her co-stars, dislike of certain foods she had to eat, some of the more strenuous tasks on the set, the make-up and special effects, and generally loving to act in a starring role! We even get to see the original Victorian townhouse used in the film! Millard just directed her in another remake of THE TURN OF THE SCREW which has yet to be released, so it’s good to know that the pair are still friends and co-workers after all these years. Trailers for SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING, CRIMINALLY INSANE and SLIME CITY, an 80s NYC gore pic which just came out on DVD, cap off this highly recommended double-feature! (Casey Scott)